Watching the football World Cup games in Brazil offers many simple lessons in history for those Indians who think that the ‘Hindus’ are original inhabitants of India while Christians and Muslims are ‘foreigners’.
Before some football fan chokes on his popcorn let me explain this a bit. One of the most obvious things that strikes a viewer looking at the football teams of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Honduras is the tremendous racial and ethnic diversity of the players. Pure white and pure black of course but also mixes of black and white, white and native American or black and native American.
Amidst this diversity though what is also evident is that the original inhabitants of Latin America do not figure very prominently. Taking a closer look at the Latin American football teams for example, it is shocking that there are no pure native Americans represented anywhere.
The reason is quite simple. In Latin America historically- as in other parts of the world- the indigenous people themselves have been the football, to be kicked around at whim by technologically stronger, politically wilier and militarily more aggressive communities. The few who make it to the football field somehow, do so with their legs already broken in battle with the numerous social, economic and cultural barriers that cross their path.
So what does all this have to do with Indian history? It is my contention that what has happened in Latin America in just 500 years of European colonisation has been going on in India for perhaps nearly 5000 years or more, shaping the country’s history, politics, culture and even contemporary reality in more than one way. In other words, the historical processes that have created contemporary racial and cultural diversity in Latin America are similar to those that have led to the even greater diversity in Indian society, the only difference being the time periods involved.
Of course, while we know a character called Christopher Columbus went from Europe and ‘discovered’ the Americas in the case of Indian history we have no such single, clear cut figure (though as I will describe later, the myth of Lord Rama perhaps fits the bill in this context). What we do have certainly is plenty of evidence of repeated incursions by migrants, invaders, refugees swamping the subcontinent over time making India a melting pot of almost every race, language and culture on Earth.
All this amalgam in both Latin America and India however has come at the cost of indigenous people historically pushed out from their territories by colonising migrants, who have imposed their own values and cultures on them even while usurping their knowledge and many of their traditions.
The evidence of how the natives of South America have been decimated and marginalised in country after another is very stark and one of the most brutal episodes in modern world history. When Christopher Columbus landed in the cluster of islands, that are now known as the Bahamas in 1492, the population of native Indians in the Americas is estimated to have been anywhere between 50-100 million. By the end of the 17th century almost 90% had died of disease or fighting with the European migrants.
In Brazil alone, the indigenous population has declined from a pre-Columbian high of an estimated four million to a mere 300,000 by the end of the 20th century! The descendants of Africans, initially brought in as slaves by the Portuguese, are today far larger in number with the predos (black) numbering 15 million and prados (multiracial or brown) 86 million in 2010.
In countries like Argentina and Uruguay today there are virtually no indigenous people alive, having been massacred long ago, while in the Andean nations of Ecuador and Colombia the identity of a large section of natives has been wiped out through miscegenation. A very large section of the mestizos or descendants of mixed European and native American ancestry today prefer to call themselves ‘white’, showing the obviously low status of other half of their genetic inheritance.
Similarly in India indigenous populations have been subjugated in various ways over the centuries by colonisers coming from outside the sub-continent. The most important loss of course has been that of territory with a vast majority of these people forced out of fertile agricultural lands around various river basins into forests, up the hills or along the coasts of India (from where ironically they are being chased out even today in the name of ‘development’).
While the archaeological evidence is sketchy, among the first large migrations into India was that of the so-called ‘Aryan’ people from somewhere in the Ural mountains region 3500 years ago, followed by successive waves of other people along the same as well as other routes. There are those who claim the Aryans were themselves native to India and did not come from outside but there are enough pointers from linguistic, literary and cultural sources to back up the theory of Aryan colonisation of the Indian sub-continent.
One important way of understanding what really happened when the Aryan migrants and the indigenous populations of India confronted each other comes from Hindu mythology itself, in particular the two ancient epics Ramayana and Mahabharat.
Those who believe the ancient Indian epic Ramayana has religious significance like to project it as a straightforward story of good versus evil, sacrifice and filial piety. However, it does not take too much sociological analysis to understand the epic as a founding myth of how the Aryan migrants and their culture spread across India establishing their rule over the natives.
Over several millennia ago, the claim that Rama, the Aryan prince in exile managed to find his way from kingdom of Ayodhya, somewhere in the heart of Uttar Pradesh all the way to Sri Lanka to fight a battle against the tribal king Ravana makes little logistical sense. In all probability the original event (assuming it really happened) must have been played out within a 100 kilometer radius of Ayodhya and subsequently exaggerated into a grand epic by the fertile Indian imagination.
The epic however has to be understood as purely an allegorical tale of how the Aryans expanded their control over the sub-continent, as they moved through it over the centuries through the processes of ‘Conquest, Compromise and Cooption’. As Rama traverses through the country he builds alliances with tribal populations to vanquish the ‘bad’ indigenous chieftain Ravana while coopting his brother Vibhishana. Wherever Aryan culture and hegemony got established the local context also got incorporated within the Ramayana storyline both within India and abroad. Some versions of the epic for instance mention not just Lanka but also distant countries like Indonesia and Thailand.
On the other hand the epic Mahabharat, which comes much after the Ramayana, is about the battles within the fold of the Aryans over the spoils of the land that they had conquered from the natives. At one level the epic is a sophisticated delineation of what constitutes right or wrong while upholding feudal values of honor, loyalty and courage. The Bhagvad Gita, embedded in the epic, extolling the virtues of doing one’s duty without expectation of reward is today one of the revered religious texts of Hinduism itself.
And yet for all this, the Mahabharat is basically a grand exercise in sheer sophistry as it tries to pass off what is basically a bloody family feud of the Aryan rulers over property, that originally belonged to indigenous people, as an exposition of high minded philosophy. Hiding behind the melodrama of the war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas is the stark fact that both parties show zero regard for what the various subjects of their kingdom want or expect out of their rulers.
In fact, in both the Ramayana and Mahabharat the common citizen figures only in the margins, mostly as cannon fodder in the wars initiated by the Aryan royalty or embedded in blatantly racist contexts. For example, the racism of the main characters of these epics towards the original indigenous populations of the Indian sub-continent, is manifest in the story of Shambuka, a shudra ascetic slain by Rama for attempting to perform penance allegedly ‘in violation of dharma’. Similarly in the Mahabhatat, Ekalavya, a Nishadha youth, is deliberately crippled by Dronacharya to prevent him from becoming a better archer than Arjuna, the Kshatriya prince.
The depiction of indigenous people in the Ramayana as ‘demons’ when they fight against Rama and as ‘monkeys and bears’ even when they support Rama is also an obvious example of the racist mindset of the original Aryan invaders. The portrayal of Hanuman, who is arguably still one of the most popular Hindu deities, as a ‘monkey’ is a shameful reminder of this racism that continues to operate in Hindu society to this day. It is no wonder the Indian ruling class hates the term ‘human rights’, as accepting this concept would mean having to stop treating non-Aryan populations as animals!
All this history would not have been important at all if not for several provocative statements emerging from the Hindutva camp in recent times. For example the sweeping victory of the BJP in Indian general elections has been portrayed by the party’s supporters as being the ‘first time in a millennium that Hindus are back in power’. Also, in several speeches, before and after becoming the Indian PM none other than Narendra Modi himself has made bizarre statements like ‘ a slave mentality of 1,200 years has troubled Hindus’ perhaps referring in a veiled way to the many centuries of Muslim rule followed by British colonialism in the subcontinent.
The question that arises is why stop at 1000 or 1200 years of Indian history and why not 3500-5000 years, when the Aryan hordes trooped across the Indus and took over the entire sub-continent from its indigenous populations and are still in the process of proselitysing among and converting Adivasi populations?
The answer is very simple. The battle for power in India is not one of Hindus versus people from other religions but between a minority of Aryanised Hindus lording it over a majority of non-Aryan Hindus by pretending to be champions of nationalism and Hinduism. The frontal attack on religious communities such as Christians and Muslims as ‘foreigners’ by the Sangh Parivar is meant precisely to hide this fact that upper caste Hindus and their collaboraters have colonised the rest of Hindu society for several millennia.
In theory, Hinduism comes across as one the world’s most tolerant and eclectic religions with its polytheism, worship of nature, diverse traditions, sophisticated moral philosophy and transcendentalism. In practice however, the colonial nature of Hindu society, has made it an ugly world of rigid caste/race hierarchies, gender oppression and harsh invidividualism with little generosity or compassion towards the poor or the weak.
The biggest losers in this battle historically have been indigenous people, who remain the poorest and the most abused people in the country, deprived of access to their own territories and resources or even the right to their own independent religious identity.
In Latin America, after all these centuries of genocide by the colonialists (and their successors), in recent decades, there have been stirrings of political assertion and revolt by native Americans, particularly in the Andean countries and in parts of Central America.
In Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela indigenous populations have organized themselves effectively to either actually dictate terms to those in power or at least making sure they are no longer ill-treated and neglected. The indigenous worldview, that believes in living in harmony with Mother Earth and promotes respect for all forms of life, has today become the most powerful intellectual trend within progressive movements.
In the Indian context it is clear, if there is to be any real political, economic or cultural transformation the insidious Aryan yoke controlling everything from political to cultural power will have to be overthrown. And not just that, if India itself is to survive in the long run, it is the egalitarian and ecologically sustainable vision of India’s own indigenous populations that needs to replace the exploitative, parasitical and ultimately colonial rule of the Aryanised minorities.
And once that happens, neither World Cup football or for that matter cricket will ever be the same again.
Satya Sagar is a writer, public health and human rights activist. He can be reached at [email protected]